The USA: its history, geography and political system
A brief history of
The colonial era
A new nation
Slavery and The Civil War
The late 19th century
The progressive moment
War and peace
The great depression
World War II
The Cold War
Decades of change
The Frontier Spirit
Bill of Rights
The court of last resort
Political parties and elections
THE COLONIAL ERA
The first successful English colony was founded at
Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. A few years later, English Puritans came to
America to escape religious persecution for their opposition to the Church of
England. In 1620, the Puritans founded Plymouth Colony in what later became
Massachusetts. Plymouth was the second permanent British settlement in North
America and the first in New England.
In New England the Puritans hoped to build a
"city upon a hill" -- an ideal community. Ever since, Americans have
viewed their country as a great experiment, a worthy model for other nations to
follow. The Puritans believed that government should enforce God's morality,
and they strictly punished heretics, adulterers, drunks, and violators of the
Sabbath. In spite of their own quest for religious freedom, the Puritans
practiced a form of intolerant moralism. In 1636 an English clergyman named
Roger Williams left Massachusetts and founded the colony of Rhode Island, based
on the principles of religious freedom and separation of church and state, two
ideals that were later adopted by framers of the U.S. Constitution.
Colonists arrived from other European countries, but
the English were far better established in America. By 1733 English settlers
had founded 13 colonies along the Atlantic Coast, from New Hampshire in the
North to Georgia in the South. Elsewhere in North America, the French
controlled Canada and Louisiana, which included the vast Mississippi River
watershed. France and England fought several wars during the 18th century, with
North America being drawn into every one. The end of the Seven Years' War in
1763 left England in control of Canada and all of North America east of the
Soon afterwards England and its colonies were in
conflict. The mother country imposed new taxes, in part to defray the cost of
fighting the Seven Years' War, and expected Americans to lodge British soldiers
in their homes. The colonists resented the taxes and resisted the quartering of
soldiers. Insisting that they could be taxed only by their own colonial
assemblies, the colonists rallied behind the slogan "no taxation without
All the taxes, except one on tea, were removed, but in
1773 a group of patriots responded by staging the Boston Tea Party. Disguised
as Indians, they boarded British merchant ships and dumped 342 crates of tea into
Boston harbor. This provoked a crackdown by the British Parliament, including
the closing of Boston harbor to shipping. Colonial leaders convened the First
Continental Congress in 1774 to discuss the colonies' opposition to British
rule. War broke out on April 19, 1775, when British soldiers confronted
colonial rebels in Lexington, Massachusetts. On July 4, 1776, the Continental
Congress adopted a Declaration of Independence.
At first the Revolutionary War went badly for the
Americans. With few provisions and little training, American troops generally
fought well, but were outnumbered and overpowered by the British. The turning
point in the war came in 1777 when American soldiers defeated the British Army
at Saratoga, New York. France had secretly been aiding the Americans, but was
reluctant to ally itself openly until they had proved themselves in battle.
Following the Americans' victory at Saratoga, France and America signed
treaties of alliance, and France provided the Americans with troops and warships.
The last major battle of the American Revolution took
place at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781. A combined force of American and French
troops surrounded the British and forced their surrender. Fighting continued in
some areas for two more years, and the war officially ended with the Treaty of
Paris in 1783, by which England recognized American independence.
A NEW NATION
The framing of the U.S. Constitution and the creation
of the United States are covered in more detail in chapter 4. In essence, the
Constitution alleviated Americans' fear of excessive central power by dividing
government into three branches -- legislative (Congress), executive (the
president and the federal agencies), and judicial (the federal courts) -- and
by including 10 amendments known as the Bill of Rights to safeguard individual
liberties. Continued uneasiness about the accumulation of power manifested
itself in the differing political philosophies of two towering figures from the
Revolutionary period. George Washington, the war's military hero and the first
U.S. president, headed a party favoring a strong president and central
government; Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of
Independence, headed a party preferring to allot more power to the states, on
the theory that they would be more accountable to the people.
SLAVERY AND THE CIVIL WAR
In the first quarter of the 19th century, the frontier
of settlement moved west to the Mississippi River and beyond. In 1828 Andrew
Jackson became the first "outsider" elected president: a man from the
frontier state of Tennessee, born into a poor family and outside the cultural
traditions of the Atlantic seaboard.
Although on the surface the Jacksonian Era was one of
optimism and energy, the young nation was entangled in a contradiction. The
ringing words of the Declaration of Independence, "all men are created
equal," were meaningless for 1.5 million slaves. (For more on slavery and
its aftermath, see chapters 1 and 4.)
In 1820 southern and northern politicians debated the
question of whether slavery would be legal in the western territories. Congress
reached a compromise: Slavery was permitted in the new state of Missouri and
the Arkansas Territory but barred everywhere west and north of Missouri. The
outcome of the Mexican War of 1846-48 brought more territory into American
hands -- and with it the issue of whether to extend slavery. Another
compromise, in 1850, admitted California as a free state, with the citizens of
Utah and New Mexico being allowed to decide whether they wanted slavery within
their borders or not (they did not).
But the issue continued to rankle. After Abraham
Lincoln, a foe of slavery, was elected president in 1860, 11 states left the
Union and proclaimed themselves an independent nation, the Confederate States
of America: South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana,
Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina. The American Civil
War had begun.
The Confederate Army did well in the early part of the
war, and some of its commanders, especially General Robert E. Lee, were
brilliant tacticians. But the Union had superior manpower and resources to draw
upon. In the summer of 1863 Lee took a gamble by marching his troops north into
Pennsylvania. He met a Union army at Gettysburg, and the largest battle ever
fought on American soil ensued. After three days of desperate fighting, the
Confederates were defeated. At the same time, on the Mississippi River, Union
General Ulysses S. Grant captured the city of Vicksburg, giving the North
control of the entire Mississippi Valley and splitting the Confederacy in two.
Two years later, after a long campaign involving
forces commanded by Lee and Grant, the Confederates surrendered. The Civil War
was the most traumatic episode in American history. But it resolved two matters
that had vexed Americans since 1776. It put an end to slavery, and it decided
that the country was not a collection of semi-independent states but an
THE LATE 19TH CENTURY
Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, depriving
America of a leader uniquely qualified by background and temperament to heal
the wounds left by the Civil War. His successor, Andrew Johnson, was a
southerner who had remained loyal to the Union during the war. Northern members
of Johnson's own party (Republican) set in motion a process to remove him from
office for allegedly acting too leniently toward former Confederates. Johnson's
acquittal was an important victory for the principle of separation of powers: A
president should not be removed from office because Congress disagrees with his
policies, but only if he has committed, in the words of the Constitution,
"treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors."
Within a few years after the end of the Civil War, the
United States became a leading industrial power, and shrewd businessmen made
great fortunes. The first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869; by
1900 the United States had more rail mileage than all of Europe. The petroleum
industry prospered, and John D. Rockefeller of the Standard Oil Company became
one of the richest men in America. Andrew Carnegie, who started out as a poor
Scottish immigrant, built a vast empire of steel mills. Textile mills multiplied
in the South, and meat-packing plants sprang up in Chicago, Illinois. An
electrical industry flourished as Americans made use of a series of inventions:
the telephone, the light bulb, the phonograph, the alternating-current motor
and transformer, motion pictures. In Chicago, architect Louis Sullivan used
steel-frame construction to fashion America's distinctive contribution to the
modern city: the skyscraper.
But unrestrained economic growth brought dangers. To
limit competition, railroads merged and set standardized shipping rates. Trusts
-- huge combinations of corporations -- tried to establish monopoly control
over some industries, notably oil. These giant enterprises could produce goods
efficiently and sell them cheaply, but they could also fix prices and destroy
competitors. To counteract them, the federal government took action. The
Interstate Commerce Commission was created in 1887 to control railroad rates.
The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 banned trusts, mergers, and business
agreements "in restraint of trade."
Industrialization brought with it the rise of
organized labor. The American Federation of Labor, founded in 1886, was a
coalition of trade unions for skilled laborers. The late 19th century was a
period of heavy immigration, and many of the workers in the new industries were
foreign-born. For American farmers, however, times were hard. Food prices were
falling, and farmers had to bear the costs of high shipping rates, expensive
mortgages, high taxes, and tariffs on consumer goods.
With the exception of the purchase of Alaska from
Russia in 1867, American territory had remained fixed since 1848. In the 1890s
a new spirit of expansion took hold. The United States followed the lead of
northern European nations in asserting a duty to "civilize" the
peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. After American newspapers published
lurid accounts of atrocities in the Spanish colony of Cuba, the United States
and Spain went to war in 1898. When the war was over, the United States had gained
a number of possessions from Spain: Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and
Guam. In an unrelated action, the United States also acquired the Hawaiian
Yet Americans, who had themselves thrown off the
shackles of empire, were not comfortable with administering one. In 1902
American troops left Cuba, although the new republic was required to grant
naval bases to the United States. The Philippines obtained limited
self-government in 1907 and complete independence in 1946. Puerto Rico became a
self-governing commonwealth within the United States, and Hawaii became a
state in 1959 (as did Alaska).
THE PROGRESSIVE MOVEMENT
While Americans were venturing abroad, they were also
taking a fresh look at social problems at home. Despite the signs of
prosperity, up to half of all industrial workers still lived in poverty. New
York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco could be proud of their museums,
universities, and public libraries -- and ashamed of their slums. The prevailing
economic dogma had been laissez faire: let the government interfere with
commerce as little as possible. About 1900 the Progressive Movement arose to
reform society and individuals through government action. The movement's
supporters were primarily economists, sociologists, technicians, and civil
servants who sought scientific, cost-effective solutions to political problems.
Social workers went into the slums to establish
settlement houses, which provided the poor with health services and recreation.
Prohibitionists demanded an end to the sale of liquor, partly to prevent the
suffering that alcoholic husbands inflicted on their wives and children. In the
cities, reform politicians fought corruption, regulated public transportation,
and built municipally owned utilities. States passed laws restricting child
labor, limiting workdays, and providing compensation for injured workers.
Some Americans favored more radical ideologies. The
Socialist Party, led by Eugene V. Debs, advocated a peaceful, democratic transition
to a state-run economy. But socialism never found a solid footing in the United
States -- the party's best showing in a presidential race was 6 percent of the
vote in 1912.
WAR AND PEACE
When World War I erupted in Europe in 1914, President
Woodrow Wilson urged a policy of strict American neutrality. Germany's
declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare against all ships bound for
Allied ports undermined that position. When Congress declared war on Germany in
1917, the American army was a force of only 200,000 soldiers. Millions of men
had to be drafted, trained, and shipped across the submarine-infested Atlantic.
A full year passed before the U.S. Army was ready to make a significant
contribution to the war effort.
By the fall of 1918, Germany's position had become
hopeless. Its armies were retreating in the face of a relentless American
buildup. In October Germany asked for peace, and an armistice was declared on
November 11. In 1919 Wilson himself went to Versailles to help draft the peace
treaty. Although he was cheered by crowds in the Allied capitals, at home his
international outlook was less popular. His idea of a League of Nations was
included in the Treaty of Versailles, but the U.S. Senate did not ratify the
treaty, and the United States did not participate in the league.
The majority of Americans did not mourn the defeated
treaty. They turned inward, and the United States withdrew from European
affairs. At the same time, Americans were becoming hostile to foreigners in
their midst. In 1919 a series of terrorist bombings produced the "Red
Scare." Under the authority of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer,
political meetings were raided and several hundred foreign-born political
radicals were deported, even though most of them were innocent of any crime. In
1921 two Italian-born anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were
convicted of murder on the basis of shaky evidence. Intellectuals protested,
but in 1927 the two men were electrocuted. Congress enacted immigration limits
in 1921 and tightened them further in 1924 and 1929. These restrictions favored
immigrants from Anglo-Saxon and Nordic countries.
The 1920s were an extraordinary and confusing time,
when hedonism coexisted with puritanical conservatism. It was the age of
Prohibition: In 1920 a constitutional amendment outlawed the sale of alcoholic
beverages. Yet drinkers cheerfully evaded the law in thousands of
"speakeasies" (illegal bars), and gangsters made illicit fortunes in
liquor. It was also the Roaring Twenties, the age of jazz and spectacular
silent movies and such fads as flagpole-sitting and goldfish-swallowing. The Ku
Klux Klan, a racist organization born in the South after the Civil War,
attracted new followers and terrorized blacks, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants.
At the same time, a Catholic, New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, was a
Democratic candidate for president.
For big business, the 1920s were golden years. The
United States was now a consumer society, with booming markets for radios, home
appliances, synthetic textiles, and plastics. One of the most admired men of
the decade was Henry Ford, who had introduced the assembly line into automobile
factories. Ford could pay high wages and still earn enormous profits by
mass-producing the Model T, a car that millions of buyers could afford. For a
moment, it seemed that Americans had the Midas touch.
But the superficial prosperity masked deep problems.
With profits soaring and interest rates low, plenty of money was available for
investment. Much of it, however, went into reckless speculation in the stock
market. Frantic bidding pushed prices far above stock shares' real value.
Investors bought stocks "on margin," borrowing up to 90 percent of
the purchase price. The bubble burst in 1929. The stock market crashed,
triggering a worldwide depression.
THE GREAT DEPRESSION
By 1932 thousands of American banks and over 100,000
businesses had failed. Industrial production was cut in half, wages had
decreased 60 percent, and one out of every four workers was unemployed. That
year Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president on the platform of "a New
Deal for the American people."
Roosevelt's jaunty self-confidence galvanized the
nation. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," he said at
his inauguration. He followed up these words with decisive action. Within three
months -- the historic "Hundred Days" -- Roosevelt had rushed through
Congress a great number of laws to help the economy recover. Such new agencies
as the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration
created millions of jobs by undertaking the construction of roads, bridges,
airports, parks, and public buildings. Later the Social Security Act set up contributory
old-age and survivors' pensions.
Roosevelt's New Deal programs did not end the
Depression. Although the economy improved, full recovery had to await the
defense buildup preceding America's entry into World War II.
WORLD WAR II
Again neutrality was the initial American response to
the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939. But the bombing of Pearl Harbor naval
base in Hawaii by the Japanese in December 1941 brought the United States into
the war, first against Japan and then against its allies, Germany and Italy.
American, British, and Soviet war planners agreed to
concentrate on defeating Germany first. British and American forces landed in
North Africa in November 1942, proceeded to Sicily and the Italian mainland in
1943, and liberated Rome on June 4, 1944. Two days later -- D-Day -- Allied
forces landed in Normandy. Paris was liberated on August 24, and by September
American units had crossed the German border. The Germans finally surrendered
on May 5, 1945.
The war against Japan came to a swift end in August of
1945, when President Harry Truman ordered the use of atomic bombs against the
cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nearly 200,000 civilians were killed.
Although the matter can still provoke heated discussion, the argument in favor
of dropping the bombs was that casualties on both sides would have been greater
if the Allies had been forced to invade Japan.
THE COLD WAR
A new international congress, the United Nations, came
into being after the war, and this time the United States joined. Soon tensions
developed between the United States and its wartime ally the Soviet Union.
Although Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had promised to support free elections in
all the liberated nations of Europe, Soviet forces imposed Communist
dictatorships in eastern Europe. Germany became a divided country, with a
western zone under joint British, French, and American occupation and an
eastern zone under Soviet occupation. In the spring of 1948 the Soviets sealed
off West Berlin in an attempt to starve the isolated city into submission. The
western powers responded with a massive airlift of food and fuel until the
Soviets lifted the blockade in May 1949. A month earlier the United States had
allied with Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the
Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and the United Kingdom to form the North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
On June 25, 1950, armed with Soviet weapons and acting
with Stalin's approval, North Korea's army invaded South Korea. Truman
immediately secured a commitment from the United Nations to defend South Korea.
The war lasted three years, and the final settlement left Korea divided.
Soviet control of eastern Europe, the Korean War, and
the Soviet development of atomic and hydrogen bombs instilled fear in
Americans. Some believed that the nation's new vulnerability was the work of
traitors from within. Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy asserted in the early
1950s that the State Department and the U.S. Army were riddled with Communists.
McCarthy was eventually discredited. In the meantime, however, careers had been
destroyed, and the American people had all but lost sight of a cardinal
American virtue: toleration of political dissent.
From 1945 until 1970 the United States enjoyed a long
period of economic growth, interrupted only by mild and brief recessions. For
the first time a majority of Americans enjoyed a comfortable standard of
living. In 1960, 55 percent of all households owned washing machines, 77
percent owned cars, 90 percent had television sets, and nearly all had
refrigerators. At the same time, the nation was moving slowly to establish
In 1960 John F. Kennedy was elected president. Young,
energetic, and handsome, he promised to "get the country moving
again" after the eight-year presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the aging
World War II general. In October 1962 Kennedy was faced with what turned out to
be the most drastic crisis of the Cold War. The Soviet Union had been caught
installing nuclear missiles in Cuba, close enough to reach American cities in a
matter of minutes. Kennedy imposed a naval blockade on the island. Soviet
Premier Nikita Khrushschev ultimately agreed to remove the missiles, in return
for an American promise not to invade Cuba.
In April 1961 the Soviets capped a series of triumphs
in space by sending the first man into orbit around the Earth. President
Kennedy responded with a promise that Americans would walk on the moon before
the decade was over. This promise was fulfilled in July of 1969, when astronaut
Neil Armstrong stepped out of the Apollo 11 spacecraft and onto the moon's
Kennedy did not live to see this culmination. He had
been assassinated in 1963. He was not a universally popular president, but his
death was a terrible shock to the American people. His successor, Lyndon B.
Johnson, managed to push through Congress a number of new laws establishing
social programs. Johnson's "War on Poverty" included preschool
education for poor children, vocational training for dropouts from school, and
community service for slum youths.
During his six years in office, Johnson became
preoccupied with the Vietnam War. By 1968, 500,000 American troops were
fighting in that small country, previously little known to most of them.
Although politicians tended to view the war as part of a necessary effort to
check communism on all fronts, a growing number of Americans saw no vital
American interest in what happened to Vietnam. Demonstrations protesting
American involvement broke out on college campuses, and there were violent
clashes between students and police. Antiwar sentiment spilled over into a wide
range of protests against injustice and discrimination.
Stung by his increasing unpopularity, Johnson decided
not to run for a second full term. Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968.
He pursued a policy of Vietnamization, gradually replacing American soldiers
with Vietnamese. In 1973 he signed a peace treaty with North Vietnam and
brought American soldiers home. Nixon achieved two other diplomatic
breakthroughs: re-establishing U.S. relations with the People's Republic of
China and negotiating the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with the
Soviet Union. In 1972 he easily won re-election.
During that presidential campaign, however, five men
had been arrested for breaking into Democratic Party headquarters at the
Watergate office building in Washington, D.C. Journalists investigating the
incident discovered that the burglars had been employed by Nixon's re-election
committee. The White House made matters worse by trying to conceal its
connection with the break-in. Eventually, tape recordings made by the president
himself revealed that he had been involved in the cover-up. By the summer of
1974, it was clear that Congress was about to impeach and convict him. On
August 9, Richard Nixon became the only U.S. president to resign from office.
DECADES OF CHANGE
After World War II the presidency had alternated
between Democrats and Republicans, but, for the most part, Democrats had held
majorities in the Congress -- in both the House of Representatives and the
Senate. A string of 26 consecutive years of Democratic control was broken in
1980, when the Republicans gained a majority in the Senate; at the same time,
Republican Ronald Reagan was elected president. This change marked the onset of
a volatility that has characterized American voting patterns ever since.
Whatever their attitudes toward Reagan's policies,
most Americans credited him with a capacity for instilling pride in their
country and a sense of optimism about the future. If there was a central theme
to his domestic policies, it was that the federal government had become too big
and federal taxes too high.
Despite a growing federal budget deficit, in 1983 the
U.S. economy entered into one of the longest periods of sustained growth since
World War II. The Reagan administration suffered a defeat in the 1986
elections, however, when Democrats regained control of the Senate. The most
serious issue of the day was the revelation that the United States had secretly
sold arms to Iran in an attempt to win freedom for American hostages held in
Lebanon and to finance antigovernment forces in Nicaragua at a time when
Congress had prohibited such aid. Despite these revelations, Reagan continued
to enjoy strong popularity throughout his second term in office.
His successor in 1988, Republican George Bush,
benefited from Reagan's popularity and continued many of his policies. When
Iraq invaded oil-rich Kuwait in 1990, Bush put together a multinational
coalition that liberated Kuwait early in 1991.
By 1992, however, the American electorate had become
restless again. Voters elected Bill Clinton, a Democrat, president, only to
turn around two years later and give Republicans their first majority in both
the House and Senate in 40 years. Meanwhile, several perennial debates had
broken out anew -- between advocates of a strong federal government and believers
in decentralization of power, between advocates of prayer in public schools and
defenders of separation of church and state, between those who emphasize swift
and sure punishment of criminals and those who seek to address the underlying
causes of crime. Complaints about the influence of money on political campaigns
inspired a movement to limit the number of terms elected officials could serve.
This and other discontents with the system led to the formation of the
strongest Third-Party movement in generations, led by Texas businessman H. Ross
Although the economy was strong in the mid-1990s, two
phenomena were troubling many Americans. Corporations were resorting more and
more to a process known as downsizing: trimming the work force to cut costs despite
the hardships this inflicted on workers. And in many industries the gap between
the annual compensations of corporate executives and common laborers had become
enormous. Even the majority of Americans who enjoy material comfort worry about
a perceived decline in the quality of life, in the strength of the family, in
neighborliness and civility. Americans probably remain the most optimistic
people in the world, but with the century drawing to a close, opinion polls
showed that trait in shorter supply than usual.
Geography and regional
The USA stretches from the heavily
industrialized, metropolitan Atlantic coast, across the rich farms of the Great
Plains, over the Appalachian and the Rocky Mountains to the densely populated
West coast. Alaska and the island state of Hawaii are detached from the main
mid-continental group of 48 states. America is the land of physical contrasts,
including the weather. Most of the USA is the temperate zone with four distinct
seasons, while the northern states and Alaska have extremely cold winters, and
the southern parts of Florida, Texas, California have warm weather year round.
The area of the United States is 9 629 091
The United States is the land of bountiful
rivers and lakes. Minnesota is the land of 10.000 lakes. The Mississippi River
runs nearly 6 thousand km from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. The St. Lawrence
Seaway connects the Great lakes with the Atlantic Ocean.
Underground, a wealth of minerals provides
a solid base for American industry. History has glamorized the gold rushes of
California and Alaska and the silver finds in Nevada.
bordering both the North Atlantic Ocean and the North Pacific Ocean, between
Canada and Mexico
Map references: North America
total area: 9,372,610 sq km
land area: 9,166,600 sq km
comparative area: about half the size of Russia; about
three-tenths the size of Africa; about one-half the size of South America (or
slightly larger than Brazil); slightly smaller than China; about two and
one-half times the size of Western Europe
note: includes only the 50 states and District of
Land boundaries: total 12,248 km, Canada 8,893 km (including
2,477 km with Alaska), Cuba 29 km (US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay), Mexico
Coastline: 19,924 km
Climate: mostly temperate, but tropical in Hawaii
and Florida and arctic in Alaska, semiarid in the great plains west of the
Mississippi River and arid in the Great Basin of the southwest; low winter
temperatures in the northwest are ameliorated occasionally in January and
February by warm chinook winds from the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains
Terrain: vast central plain, mountains in west,
hills and low mountains in east; rugged mountains and broad river valleys in
Alaska; rugged, volcanic topography in Hawaii
coal, copper, lead,
molybdenum, phosphates, uranium, bauxite, gold, iron, mercury, nickel, potash,
silver, tungsten, zinc, petroleum, natural gas, timber
Land use: arable land: 20%, permanent crops:
0%, meadows and pastures: 26%, forest and woodland: 29%, other: 25%, irrigated
land: 181,020 sq km (1989 est.)
current issues: air pollution resulting in acid rain in
both the US and Canada; the US is the largest single emitter of carbon dioxide
from the burning of fossil fuels; water pollution from runoff of pesticides and
fertilizers; very limited natural fresh water resources in much of the western
part of the country require careful management; desertification.
natural hazards: tsunamis, volcanoes, and earthquake
activity around Pacific Basin; hurricanes along the Atlantic coast; tornadoes
in the midwest; mudslides in California; forest fires in the west; flooding;
permafrost in northern Alaska is a major impediment to development
agreements: party to - Air
Pollution, Air Pollution-Nitrogen Oxides, Antarctic Treaty, Climate Change,
Endangered Species, Environmental Modification, Marine Dumping, Marine Life
Conservation, Nuclear Test Ban, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution,
Tropical Timber 83, Wetlands, Whaling; signed, but not ratified - Air
Pollution-Volatile Organic Compounds, Antarctic-Environmental Protocol,
Biodiversity, Desertification, Hazardous Wastes, Tropical Timber 94
Note: world's fourth-largest country (after
Russia, Canada, and China)
Traditionally the USA is divided into
New England, made up of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont,
Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.
The Middle Atlantic, comprising New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania,
Delaware, and Maryland.
The South, which runs from Virginia south to Florida
and west as far as central Texas. This region also includes West Virginia,
Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama,
Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and parts of Missouri and Oklahoma.
The Midwest, a broad collection of states sweeping
westward from Ohio to Nebraska and including Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin,
Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, parts of Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas,
and eastern Colorado.
The Southwest, made up of western Texas, portions of
Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and the southern interior part of
The West, comprising Colorado, Wyoming, Montana,
Utah, California, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii.
Note that there is
nothing official about these regions; many other lineups are possible. These
groupings are offered simply as a way to begin the otherwise daunting task of
getting acquainted with the United States.
How much sense does
it make to talk about American regions when practically all Americans can watch
the same television shows and go to the same fast-food restaurants for dinner?
One way to answer the question is by giving examples of lingering regional
Consider the food
Americans eat. Most of it is standard wherever you go. A person can buy
packages of frozen peas bearing the same label in Idaho, Missouri, and
Virginia. Cereals, candy bars, and many other items also come in identical
packages from Alaska to Florida. Generally, the quality of fresh fruits and
vegetables does not vary much from one state to the next. On the other hand, it
would be unusual to be served hush puppies (a kind of fried dough) or grits
(boiled and ground corn prepared in a variety of ways) in Massachusetts or
Illinois, but normal to get them in Georgia. Other regions have similar
favorites that are hard to find elsewhere.
English is generally standard, American speech often differs according
to what part of the country you are in. Southerners tend to speak slowly, in
what is referred to as a "Southern drawl." Midwesterners use
"flat" a's (as in "bad" or "cat"), and the New
York City patois features a number of Yiddish words ("schlepp,"
"nosh," "nebbish") contributed by the city's large Jewish
also make themselves felt in less tangible ways, such as attitudes and
outlooks. An example is the attention paid to foreign events in newspapers. In
the East, where people look out across the Atlantic Ocean, papers tend to show
greatest concern with what is happening in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and
western Asia. On the West Coast, news editors give more attention to events in
East Asia and Australia.
regional differences more fully, let's take a closer look at the regions
The smallest region,
New England has not been blessed with large expanses of rich farmland or a mild
climate. Yet it played a dominant role in American development. From the 17th
century until well into the 19th, New England was the country's cultural and
The earliest European
settlers of New England were English Protestants of firm and settled doctrine.
Many of them came in search of religious liberty. They gave the region its
distinctive political format -- the town meeting (an outgrowth of meetings held
by church elders) in which citizens gathered to discuss issues of the day. Only
men of property could vote. Nonetheless, town meetings afforded New Englanders
an unusually high level of participation in government. Such meetings still
function in many New England communities today.
New Englanders found
it difficult to farm the land in large lots, as was common in the South. By
1750, many settlers had turned to other pursuits. The mainstays of the region
became shipbuilding, fishing, and trade. In their business dealings, New
Englanders gained a reputation for hard work, shrewdness, thrift, and
These traits came in
handy as the Industrial Revolution reached America in the first half of the
19th century. In Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, new factories
sprang up to manufacture such goods as clothing, rifles, and clocks. Most of
the money to run these businesses came from Boston, which was the financial
heart of the nation.
New England also
supported a vibrant cultural life. The critic Van Wyck Brooks called the
creation of a distinctive American literature in the first half of the 19th
century "the flowering of New England." Education is another of the
region's strongest legacies. Its cluster of top-ranking universities and
colleges -- including Harvard, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, Wellesley, Smith, Mt.
Holyoke, Williams, Amherst, and Wesleyan -- is unequaled by any other region.
As some of the
original New England settlers migrated westward, immigrants from Canada,
Ireland, Italy, and eastern Europe moved into the region. Despite a changing
population, much of the original spirit of New England remains. It can be seen
in the simple, woodframe houses and white church steeples that are features of
many small towns, and in the traditional lighthouses that dot the Atlantic
In the 20th century,
most of New England's traditional industries have relocated to states or
foreign countries where goods can be made more cheaply. In more than a few
factory towns, skilled workers have been left without jobs. The gap has been
partly filled by the microelectronics and computer industries.
If New England
provided the brains and dollars for 19th-century American expansion, the Middle
Atlantic states provided the muscle. The region's largest states, New York and
Pennsylvania, became centers of heavy industry (iron, glass, and steel).
The Middle Atlantic
region was settled by a wider range of people than New England. Dutch
immigrants moved into the lower Hudson River Valley in what is now New York
State. Swedes went to Delaware. English Catholics founded Maryland, and an
English Protestant sect, the Friends (Quakers), settled Pennsylvania. In time,
all these settlements fell under English control, but the region continued to
be a magnet for people of diverse nationalities.
Early settlers were
mostly farmers and traders, and the region served as a bridge between North and
South. Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania, midway between the northern and southern
colonies, was home to the Continental Congress, the convention of delegates
from the original colonies that organized the American Revolution. The same
city was the birthplace of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the U.S.
Constitution in 1787.
As heavy industry
spread throughout the region, rivers such as the Hudson and Delaware were
transformed into vital shipping lanes. Cities on waterways -- New York on the
Hudson, Philadelphia on the Delaware, Baltimore on Chesapeake Bay -- grew
dramatically. New York is still the nation's largest city, its financial hub,
and its cultural center.
Like New England, the
Middle Atlantic region has seen much of its heavy industry relocate elsewhere.
Other industries, such as drug manufacturing and communications, have taken up
The South is perhaps
the most distinctive and colorful American region. The American Civil War
(1861-65) devastated the South socially and economically. Nevertheless, it
retained its unmistakable identity.
Like New England, the
South was first settled by English Protestants. But whereas New Englanders
tended to stress their differences from the old country, Southerners tended to
emulate the English. Even so, Southerners were prominent among the leaders of
the American Revolution, and four of America's first five presidents were
Virginians. After 1800, however, the interests of the manufacturing North and
the agrarian South began to diverge.
Especially in coastal
areas, southern settlers grew wealthy by raising and selling cotton and tobacco.
The most economical way to raise these crops was on large farms, called
plantations, which required the work of many laborers. To supply this need,
plantation owners relied on slaves brought from Africa, and slavery spread
throughout the South.
Slavery was the most
contentious issue dividing North and South. To northerners it was immoral; to
southerners it was integral to their way of life. In 1860, 11 southern states
left the Union intending to form a separate nation, the Confederate States of
America. This rupture led to the Civil War, the Confederacy's defeat, and the
end of slavery. (For more on the Civil War, see chapter 3.) The scars left by
the war took decades to heal. The abolition of slavery failed to provide
African Americans with political or economic equality: Southern towns and
cities legalized and refined the practice of racial segregation.
It took a long,
concerted effort by African Americans and their supporters to end segregation.
In the meantime, however, the South could point with pride to a 20th-century
regional outpouring of literature by, among others, William Faulkner, Thomas
Wolfe, Robert Penn Warren, Katherine Anne Porter, Tennessee Williams, Eudora
Welty, and Flannery O'Connor.
As southerners, black
and white, shook off the effects of slavery and racial division, a new regional
pride expressed itself under the banner of "the New South" and in
such events as the annual Spoleto Music Festival in Charleston, South Carolina,
and the 1996 summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Today the South has
evolved into a manufacturing region, and high-rise buildings crowd the skylines
of such cities as Atlanta and Little Rock, Arkansas. Owing to its mild weather,
the South has become a mecca for retirees from other U.S. regions and from Canada.
The Midwest is a
cultural crossroads. Starting in the early 1800s easterners moved there in
search of better farmland, and soon Europeans bypassed the East Coast to
migrate directly to the interior: Germans to eastern Missouri, Swedes and
Norwegians to Wisconsin and Minnesota. The region's fertile soil made it
possible for farmers to produce abundant harvests of cereal crops such as
wheat, oats, and corn. The region was soon known as the nation's "breadbasket."
Most of the Midwest
is flat. The Mississippi River has acted as a regional lifeline, moving
settlers to new homes and foodstuffs to market. The river inspired two classic
American books, both written by a native Missourian, Samuel Clemens, who took
the pseudonym Mark Twain: Life on the Mississippi and Adventures of
praised as being open, friendly, and straightforward. Their politics tend to be
cautious, but the caution is sometimes peppered with protest. The Midwest gave
birth to one of America's two major political parties, the Republican Party,
which was formed in the 1850s to oppose the spread of slavery into new states.
At the turn of the century, the region also spawned the Progressive Movement,
which largely consisted of farmers and merchants intent on making government
less corrupt and more receptive to the will of the people. Perhaps because of
their geographic location, many midwesterners have been strong adherents of
isolationism, the belief that Americans should not concern themselves with
foreign wars and problems.
The region's hub is
Chicago, Illinois, the nation's third largest city. This major Great Lakes port
is a connecting point for rail lines and air traffic to far-flung parts of the
nation and the world. At its heart stands the Sears Tower, at 447 meters, the
world's tallest building.
The Southwest differs
from the adjoining Midwest in weather (drier), population (less dense), and
ethnicity (strong Spanish-American and Native-American components). Outside the
cities, the region is a land of open spaces, much of which is desert. The
magnificent Grand Canyon is located in this region, as is Monument Valley, the
starkly beautiful backdrop for many western movies. Monument Valley is within
the Navajo Reservation, home of the most populous American Indian tribe. To the
south and east lie dozens of other Indian reservations, including those of the
Hopi, Zuni, and Apache tribes.
Parts of the Southwest
once belonged to Mexico. The United States obtained this land following the
Mexican-American War of 1846-48. Its Mexican heritage continues to exert a
strong influence on the region, which is a convenient place to settle for
immigrants (legal or illegal) from farther south. The regional population is
growing rapidly, with Arizona in particular rivaling the southern states as a
destination for retired Americans in search of a warm climate.
Population growth in
the hot, arid Southwest has depended on two human artifacts: the dam and the
air conditioner. Dams on the Colorado and other rivers and aqueducts such as
those of the Central Arizona Project have brought water to once-small towns
such as Las Vegas, Nevada; Phoenix, Arizona; and Albuquerque, New Mexico,
allowing them to become metropolises. Las Vegas is renowned as one of the
world's centers for gambling, while Santa Fe, New Mexico, is famous as a center
for the arts, especially painting, sculpture, and opera. Another system of dams
and irrigation projects waters the Central Valley of California, which is noted
for producing large harvests of fruits and vegetables.
Americans have long
regarded the West as the last frontier. Yet California has a history of
European settlement older than that of most midwestern states. Spanish priests
founded missions along the California coast a few years before the outbreak of
the American Revolution. In the 19th century, California and Oregon entered the
Union ahead of many states to the east.
The West is a region
of scenic beauty on a grand scale. All of its 11 states are partly mountainous,
and the ranges are the sources of startling contrasts. To the west of the
peaks, winds from the Pacific Ocean carry enough moisture to keep the land
well-watered. To the east, however, the land is very dry. Parts of western
Washington State, for example, receive 20 times the amount of rain that falls
on the eastern side of the state's Cascade Range.
In much of the West
the population is sparse, and the federal government owns and manages millions
of hectares of undeveloped land. Americans use these areas for recreational and
commercial activities, such as fishing, camping, hiking, boating, grazing,
lumbering, and mining. In recent years some local residents who earn their
livelihoods on federal land have come into conflict with the land's managers,
who are required to keep land use within environmentally acceptable limits.
northernmost state in the Union, is a vast land of few, but hardy, people and
great stretches of wilderness, protected in national parks and wildlife
refuges. Hawaii is the only state in the union in which Asian Americans
outnumber residents of European stock. Beginning in the 1980s large numbers of
Asians have also settled in California, mainly around Los Angeles.
Los Angeles -- and
Southern California as a whole -- bears the stamp of its large Mexican-American
population. Now the second largest city in the nation, Los Angeles is best
known as the home of the Hollywood film industry. Fueled by the growth of Los
Angeles and the "Silicon Valley" area near San Jose, California has
become the most populous of all the states.
Western cities are
known for their tolerance. Perhaps because so many westerners have moved there
from other regions to make a new start, as a rule interpersonal relations are
marked by a live-and-let-live attitude. The western economy is varied.
California, for example, is both an agricultural state and a high-technology
THE FRONTIER SPIRIT
One final American
region deserves mention. It is not a fixed place but a moving zone, as well as
a state of mind: the border between settlements and wilderness known as the
frontier. Writing in the 1890s, historian Frederick Jackson Turner claimed that
the availability of vacant land throughout much of the nation's history has
shaped American attitudes and institutions. "This perennial rebirth,"
he wrote, "this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its
continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces
dominating American character."
American values and attitudes can be traced to the frontier past:
self-reliance, resourcefulness, comradeship, a strong sense of equality. After
the Civil War a large number of black Americans moved west in search of equal
opportunities, and many of them gained some fame and fortune as cowboys,
miners, and prairie settlers. In 1869 the western territory of Wyoming became
the first place that allowed women to vote and to hold elected office.
Because the resources
of the West seemed limitless, people developed wasteful attitudes and
practices. The great herds of buffalo (American bison) were slaughtered until
only fragments remained, and many other species were driven to the brink of
extinction. Rivers were dammed and their natural communities disrupted. Forests
were destroyed by excess logging, and landscapes were scarred by careless
A counterweight to
the abuse of natural resources took form in the American conservation movement,
which owes much of its success to Americans' reluctance to see frontier
conditions disappear entirely from the landscape. Conservationists were
instrumental in establishing the first national park, Yellowstone, in 1872, and
the first national forests in the 1890s. More recently, the Endangered Species
Act has helped stem the tide of extinctions.
programs can be controversial; for example, some critics believe that the
Endangered Species Act hampers economic progress. But, overall, the movement to
preserve America's natural endowment continues to gain strength. Its
replication replication in many other countries around the world is a tribute
to the lasting influence of the American frontier.
A responsive government.
of powers and the democratic process.
The early American way of life encouraged democracy.
The colonists were inhabiting a land of forest and wilderness. They had to work
together to build shelter, provide food, and clear the land for farms and
dwellings. This need for cooperation strengthened the belief that, in the New
World, people should be on an equal footing, with nobody having special
The urge for equality affected the original 13
colonies' relations with the mother country, England. The Declaration of
Independence in 1776 proclaimed that all men are created equal, that all have
the right to "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."
The Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution
after it, combined America's colonial experience with the political thought of
such philosophers as England's John Locke to produce the concept of a
democratic republic. The government would draw its power from the people
themselves and exercise it through their elected representatives. During the
Revolutionary War, the colonies had formed a national congress to present
England with a united front. Under an agreement known as the Articles of
Confederation, a postwar congress was allowed to handle only problems that were
beyond the capabilities of individual states.
The Articles of Confederation failed as a governing
document for the United States because the states did not cooperate as
expected. When it came time to pay wages to the national army or the war debt
to France, some states refused to contribute. To cure this weakness, the
congress asked each state to send a delegate to a convention. The so-called
Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia in May of 1787, with George
The delegates struck a balance between those who
wanted a strong central government and those who did not. The resulting master
plan, or Constitution, set up a system in which some powers were given to the
national, or federal, government, while others were reserved for the states.
The Constitution divided the national government into three parts, or branches:
the legislative (the Congress, which consists of a House of Representatives and
a Senate), the executive (headed by the president), and the judicial (the
federal courts). Called "separation of powers," this division gives
each branch certain duties and substantial independence from the others. It
also gives each branch some authority over the others through a system of
"checks and balances."
Here are a few examples of how checks and balances
work in practice.
If Congress passes, and
the president signs, a law that is challenged in the federal courts as contrary
to the Constitution, the courts can nullify that law. (The federal courts
cannot issue advisory or theoretical opinions, however; their jurisdiction is
limited to actual disputes.)
The president has the
power to make treaties with other nations and to make appointments to federal
positions, including judgeships. The Senate, however, must approve all treaties
and confirm the appointments before they can go into effect.
Recently some observers have discerned what they see
as a weakness in the tripartite system of government: a tendency toward too
much checking and balancing that results in governmental stasis, or
BILL OF RIGHTS
The Constitution written in Philadelphia in 1787 could
not go into effect until it was ratified by a majority of citizens in at least
9 of the then 13 U.S. states. During this ratification process, misgivings
arose. Many citizens felt uneasy because the document failed to explicitly
guarantee the rights of individuals. The desired language was added in 10 amendments
to the Constitution, collectively known as the Bill of Rights.
The Bill of Rights guarantees Americans freedom of
speech, of religion, and of the press. They have the right to assemble in
public places, to protest government actions, and to demand change. There is a
right to own firearms. Because of the Bill of Rights, neither police officers
nor soldiers can stop and search a person without good reason. Nor can they
search a person's home without permission from a court to do so. The Bill of
Rights guarantees a speedy trial to anyone accused of a crime. The trial must
be by jury if requested, and the accused person must be allowed representation
by a lawyer and to call witnesses to speak for him or her. Cruel and unusual
punishment is forbidden. With the addition of the Bill of Rights, the
Constitution was ratified by all 13 states and went into effect in 1789.
Since then 17 other amendments have been added to the
Constitution. Perhaps the most important of these are the Thirteenth and
Fourteenth, which outlaw slavery and guarantee all citizens equal protection of
the laws, and the Nineteenth, which gives women the right to vote.
The Constitution can be amended in either of two ways.
Congress can propose an amendment, provided that two-thirds of the members of
both the House and the Senate vote in favor of it. Or the legislatures of
two-thirds of the states can call a convention to propose amendments. (This
second method has never been used.) In either case a proposed amendment does
not go into effect until ratified by three-fourths of the states.
The legislative branch -- the Congress -- is made up
of elected representatives from each of the 50 states. It is the only branch of
U.S. government that can make federal laws, levy federal taxes, declare war,
and put foreign treaties into effect.
Members of the House of Representatives are elected to
two-year terms. Each member represents a district in his or her home state. The
number of districts is determined by a census, which is conducted every 10
years. The most populous states are allowed more representatives than the
smaller ones, some of which have only one. In all, there are 435
representatives in the House.
Senators are elected to six-year terms. Each state has
two senators, regardless of population. Senators' terms are staggered, so that
one-third of the Senate stands for election every two years. There are 100
To become a law, a bill must pass both the House and
the Senate. After the bill is introduced in either body, it is studied by one
or more committees, amended, voted out of committee, and discussed in the
chamber of the House or Senate. If passed by one body, it goes to the other for
consideration. When a bill passes the House and the Senate in different forms,
members of both bodies meet in a "conference committee" to iron out
the differences. Groups that try to persuade members of Congress to vote for or
against a bill are called "lobbies." They may try to exert their influence
at almost any stage of the legislative process. Once both bodies have passed
the same version of a bill, it goes to the president for approval.
The chief executive of the United States is the
president, who together with the vice president is elected to a four-year term.
As a result of a constitutional amendment that went into effect in 1951, a
president may be elected to only two terms. Other than succeeding a president
who dies or is disabled, the vice president's only official duty is presiding
over the Senate. The vice president may vote in the Senate only to break a tie.
The president's powers are formidable but not
unlimited. As the chief formulator of national policy, the president proposes
legislation to Congress. As mentioned previously, the president may veto any
bill passed by Congress. The president is commander-in-chief of the armed
forces. The president has the authority to appoint federal judges as vacancies
occur, including justices of the Supreme Court. As head of his political party,
with ready access to the news media, the president can easily influence public
Within the executive branch, the president has broad
powers to issue regulations and directives carrying out the work of the federal
government's departments and agencies. The president appoints the heads and
senior officials of those departments and agencies. Heads of the major
departments, called "secretaries," are part of the president's
cabinet. The majority of federal workers, however, are selected on the basis of
merit, not politics.
The judicial branch is headed by the U.S. Supreme
Court, which is the only court specifically created by the Constitution. In
addition, Congress has established 13 federal courts of appeals and, below
them, about 95 federal district courts. The Supreme Court meets in Washington,
D.C., and the other federal courts are located in cities throughout the United
States. Federal judges are appointed for life or until they retire voluntarily;
they can be removed from office only via a laborious process of impeachment and
trial in the Congress.
The federal courts hear cases arising out of the
Constitution and federal laws and treaties, maritime cases, cases involving
foreign citizens or governments, and cases in which the federal government is
itself a party.
The Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and
eight associate justices. With minor exceptions, cases come to the Supreme
Court on appeal from lower federal or state courts. Most of these cases involve
disputes over the interpretation and constitutionality of actions taken by the
executive branch and of laws passed by Congress or the states (like federal
laws, state laws must be consistent with the U.S. Constitution).
THE COURT OF LAST RESORT
Although the three branches are said to be equal,
often the Supreme Court has the last word on an issue. The courts can rule a
law unconstitutional, which makes it void. Most such rulings are appealed to
the Supreme Court, which is thus the final arbiter of what the Constitution
means. Newspapers commonly print excerpts from the justices' opinions in
important cases, and the Court's decisions are often the subject of public
debate. This is as it should be: The decisions may settle longstanding
controversies and can have social effects far beyond the immediate outcome. Two
famous, related examples are Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Brown v.
Board of Education of Topeka (1954).
In Plessy the issue was whether blacks could be
required to ride in separate railroad cars from whites. The Court articulated a
"separate but equal" doctrine as its basis for upholding the
practice. The case sent a signal that the Court was interpreting the Thirteenth
and Fourteenth Amendments narrowly and that a widespread network of laws and
custom treating blacks and whites differently would not be disturbed. One
justice, John Marshall Harlan, dissented from the decision, arguing that
"the Constitution is color-blind."
Almost 60 years later the Court changed its mind. In Brown
the court held that deliberately segregated public schools violated the
Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause. Although the Court did not
directly overrule its Plessy decision, Justice Harlan's view of the
Constitution was vindicated. The 1954 ruling applied directly only to schools
in the city of Topeka, Kansas, but the principle it articulated reached every
public school in the nation. More than that, the case undermined segregation in
all governmental endeavors and set the nation on a new course of treating all
The Brown decision caused consternation among
some citizens, particularly in the South, but was eventually accepted as the
law of the land. Other controversial Supreme Court decisions have not received
the same degree of acceptance. In several cases between 1962 and 1985, for
example, the Court decided that requiring students to pray or listen to prayer
in public schools violated the Constitution's prohibition against establishing
a religion. Critics of these decisions believe that the absence of prayer in
public schools has contributed to a decline in American morals; they have tried
to find ways to restore prayer to the schools without violating the
Constitution. In Roe v. Wade (1973), the Court guaranteed women the
right to have abortions in certain circumstances -- a decision that continues
to offend those Americans who consider abortion to be murder. Because the Roe
v. Wade decision was based on an interpretation of the Constitution,
opponents have been trying to amend the Constitution to overturn it.
POLITICAL PARTIES AND ELECTIONS
Americans regularly exercise their democratic rights
by voting in elections and by participating in political parties and election
campaigns. Today, there are two major political parties in the United States,
the Democratic and the Republican. The Democratic Party evolved from the party
of Thomas Jefferson, formed before 1800. The Republican Party was established
in the 1850s by Abraham Lincoln and others who opposed the expansion of slavery
into new states then being admitted to the Union.
The Democratic Party is considered to be the more
liberal party, and the Republican, the more conservative. Democrats generally
believe that government has an obligation to provide social and economic
programs for those who need them. Republicans are not necessarily opposed to
such programs but believe they are too costly to taxpayers. Republicans put
more emphasis on encouraging private enterprise in the belief that a strong
private sector makes citizens less dependent on government.
Both major parties have supporters among a wide
variety of Americans and embrace a wide range of political views. Members, and
even elected officials, of one party do not necessarily agree with each other
on every issue. Americans do not have to join a political party to vote or to
be a candidate for public office, but running for office without the money and
campaign workers a party can provide is difficult.
Minor political parties -- generally referred to as
"third parties" -- occasionally form in the United States, but their
candidates are rarely elected to office. Minor parties often serve, however, to
call attention to an issue that is of concern to voters, but has been neglected
in the political dialogue. When this happens, one or both of the major parties
may address the matter, and the third party disappears.
At the national level, elections are held every two
years, in even-numbered years, on the first Tuesday following the first Monday
in November. State and local elections often coincide with national elections,
but they also are held in other years and can take place at other times of
Americans are free to determine how much or how little
they become involved in the political process. Many citizens actively
participate by working as volunteers for a candidate, by promoting a particular
cause, or by running for office themselves. Others restrict their participation
to voting on election day, quietly letting their democratic system work,
confident that their freedoms are protected.